Burden of Innocence
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Exonerated men talk about the years they spent in prison, the vain attempts to erase from their memories the horrors of life behind bars, and how the day-to-day struggle to survive in prison carries over to life outside.

photo of williamson RON WILLIAMSON

Death Row is the closest thing that I can imagine -- other than Krakow, Auschwitz, Treblinka -- as really a place of hell on earth. It was devastating to be moved there and to find out that there actually was a place, not some mythical place, but actually a physical presence. I was on Death Row in Oklahoma for the murder of someone I didn't murder.

read his story

[What does one feel in that situation?]

Total loss. Just shocked. Just the worst nightmare. That's what it was. ...

One of the shocking things about Death Row was people threatening to kill one another. There were fights and vicious arguments and murder among the population. And it just turned out to be just what I only could imagine the Jews suffered in World War II concentration camps. ...

I had quarrels with not only one, but several inmates down there. I'd never killed anybody, but I was threatened with my life regularly. ... If I could just really tell you the truth, I almost got killed. ... The closest to what I could imagine would have been a tour in 'Nam. It was just continually painful for a solid year. ...

[You mentioned the noise of the place.]

The noise I was talking about was the steel doors when they'd rack open and rack shut. I mean, it was just a deafening clanging of steel. It would just give me a headache, it would be so loud. I had a headache most of the time. ... The first 17 months I was there, I had a headache all the time. ... There were different kinds of pain. But that headache pain ... was severe. ...

It was just a frenzy, feverish pitch of people, of discontents who were wanting out of their suffering so bad and they would blame it on other people, including myself. ...

[You played the guitar a lot while you were in prison.]

That's how I passed a lot of the time off down there. I played the guitar, strummed around on it a little bit. ...

[What did you do every day?]

I took a Bible college course and that took up around six months. I remember doing that. I watched TV very little. I kept that guitar in my hands and I played the guitar just most of the time.

It was something that would pass the time away faster than reading. I quit reading. At first I read but then it became so prevalent that what I was reading in these novels of suspense, thrillers and drama and things like that, was unfolding right before me in the physical nature of inmates there on the Row. I didn't have to need any books to describe what fiction was, because it was true crime. ...

[You tried to kill yourself in prison.]

I experimented with it, yeah. I tried killing myself right after I got down there, yeah, I did. What I did was I saved up all my medicine that they give me, and I got 19 pills, I remember that. ... And I took them and laid down to see if I was going to die. And I didn't. Rats. That's one time that I tried to kill myself.

Another time I tied a sheet around my neck. ... I had a captain talk me out of it. He came to my cell and he said, "Ron, you wouldn't want to show your family something like that." He said, "Get on down from there." And so I got down and I didn't hang myself. ...

I haven't thought about killing myself in 12-15 years. It's been a long time ago since I was that way. The only reason I was [suicidal] is because I couldn't find any escape. Now if I don't feel good, I can go out the door and walk and do my pushups and my exercises and it makes me feel better. But nothing in those years would make me feel good, nothing whatsoever. ...

The only thing I could rationalize was that I was getting paid back for something else maybe I'd done -- a DUI, drinking a bottle of beer, a public intoxication or something like those petty little things I used to do. So I figured, well, this is just the kind of punishment I'm getting. ... I had to make some kind of sense out of it because I didn't understand how I could be going through as much pain. So I just accepted that there was a judgmental God, that he would force situations that were extraordinary in their pain. ...

photo of daye frederick daye

It was the worst experience I've ever had in my life. I wouldn't wish that on nobody. Nobody. I'm in a prison with 6,000 people. Everybody has life sentences basically, and I was the only person there from Iowa. No friends, no nothing. I didn't know anybody.

read his story

In California prisons -- in California period -- they have a lot of gangs and stuff. When I first got there I didn't know nothing about no gangs. I didn't know what a Crip or a Blood [was]. ... I didn't know nothing about any of that stuff. So I was thrust into a situation where I'm like, man, if I can't get out of this, I got to survive some way. And I ask God, "If you ever let me up out of this, allow me to leave this place, virtually unscathed"-- I ain't got no stab marks on me, nothing like that. So other than the mental aspect of what I went through, physically I'm alright.

[What was the mental aspect?]

It just made you have the attitude where you just didn't care about nothing -- life itself or nothing. You have people in there who are straight predators, and that's all they've ever done all their life. Any sign of weakness, they would exploit, regardless who you were, how big you were, how small, who you knew or whatever.

There's just things that happen in that sort of environment that unless you're a strong individual, and you're really trying to survive, you'll fall to the wayside. Either end up a homosexual, or one of them guys that's always being punked out, or you end up on a bunch of medication where the effects of the medication are irreversible. You're virtually a walking zombie. ...

[Which one were you?]

A survivor. I had to do things to people in order to maintain my sense of sanity and my sense of self-worth -- stabbing people and things like that.

[You weren't a nice guy there.]

No, no. I couldn't be a nice guy. Nice guys, they finish last or end up dead for real. ...

You know, I've done [bad] things in my lifetime, but I've done far more good than I have done bad in my life. And for God to put me through that situation at that time, I couldn't understand it. I really couldn't understand it. I know I don't have a right to question God, but I was questioning him. And I still question him right now to this day, because even though I've been out of prison going on nine or 10 years, I still go through things that I wouldn't want nobody else to go through on a day-to-day basis. ...

California, their prison system is designed solely for punishment; there's no such thing as rehabilitation. So when you're there, you're there to be punished. ... You don't know nothing other than the bad things that you learned from the other people that you're in prison with. You can learn how to be a better criminal or a worse criminal, but you can't learn how to become a productive citizen, a citizen that's going to be beneficial to his neighbor or his neighborhood or anything like that. In order for you to be rehabilitated, you have to first be habilitated, I think. And a lot of them guys come from broken homes and they have no love for anything other than their gangs and stuff like that. ...

I got so depressed from being in prison for something I didn't do that I just couldn't deal with it. ... I figured that OK, I'm depressed. I got all these different feelings. I'm in one of the most violent prisons in the United States, constantly surrounded by violence, 24-7. ... So I started seeing a psychiatrist and they started prescribing me on different pills and stuff. And at that moment in time, I thought it was an escape from the realism of being in prison, but it wasn't. Because a lot of the drugs that I took were actually drugs that they give to people who are real violent. And them drugs are irreversible. ... All the drugs would do was just basically make you sleep and make you to the point where you didn't want to do nothing, you had no motivation, no anything. All you wanted to do is sleep. You get up in the morning, go to breakfast, go to the med line, take your pill, go back to bed. ...

[How long did you do that?]

I did that basically for like five or six years. ... I just took myself off of them. I'm like, "No, this ain't right," 'cause I have no motivation and I'm feeling the effects of these pills each and every day. ... I just stopped taking them.

[What were you like before prison?]

Happy-go-lucky, free-spirited type. Type of person that would go out of his way to make other people laugh regardless how I feel. ... That was a long time ago, though. ...

It made me hard-hearted. I just stopped caring about anything -- the girlfriends that I had and things like that and just love in general. You try not to think about things like that ... because those things can be considered as weaknesses. Since then I've had a lot of problems with trying to express my feelings as far as love and caring for people. ...

photo of robinson anthony robinson

Prison is really hard to describe as long as you're talking to a reasonable person, because the very essence of confinement is unreasonable. The world gets turned on its head and the conduct that you would think is abhorrent is commonplace. The things that are done to people that you would think are unconscionable are just a matter of routine. So it's almost like living in a twisted dimension in the sense that everything that you can imagine about brutality -- cruelty, inhumanity, man's inhumanity to man -- you can find it in different shades in prison. People talk about the law of the jungle. Well the law of the jungle would be kind of nice if it existed in prison. It's like the law of the jungle, you know, [but] twisted. ...

read his story

[How did prison and this experience change you?]

... Once you've experienced something very, very, traumatic, you can never ever erase it from your memory. You can try to bypass it or overlook it but it's still there and it changes your view of the world. You no longer ask yourself, how can they do that? You ask yourself, how can I stop them from doing it again? ...

You have to also deal with the stigma of trying to fit back into a world where you've been taken out. You've missed the normal development of a human being in a reasonable social environment. You've been taken out, put into this insane world, been expected to survive. Now that you've survived, they take you out and they put you back in the real world and they say, "OK, forget everything that happened to you."

Well, you can't, because it's changed everything. ... When you look at the people and you look at how they live in imprisonment and incarceration, you look at the people afterwards and you start seeing the similar behaviors and you start remembering what that behavior was connected to. ...

Your thinking changes. You know, I don't have horns, I don't have fangs, I don't have claws. But my way of looking at things has been changed in ways that I can't even describe. I mean, the world to me now is kind of Kafkaesque. ... You just kind of come to the conclusion that maybe that's just what they intend to do when they put people in prison: to remove them so much from society that they can never, ever really fit back in. They're always afraid of being taken out of society again, so they never really attach themselves to society, never really try to fit in anymore. ...

I would have to say that I do suffer to a certain degree from post-traumatic stress disorder, in the sense that I find myself getting up sometimes in the middle of the night just to walk around and check the doors and make sure that I can walk around. And sometimes I'll get up in the middle of the night and I'll get my wife and say, "Let's go to the store," just so we can go somewhere. ...

photo of charles clyde charles

It was hell. Any time somebody got to hold a gun over you 24-7, that's hell. When you don't have a free will, you got to ask the man, "Say chief, can I go to the bathroom?" ... You got to ask permission to do this and do that. ...

read his story

They done took everything from me mentally. Physically, it's a shame that a man have to cry night after night to be with their family, night after night to be with a woman that they love. And you know that shock itself to the brain. You know, when you take a person out ... of the normal society and put him in a abnormal society, now they going to have to see what kind of effect they that they created or what kind of lunatic did they [create]. ...

[What did you think freedom would be like?]

I never thought about freedom because I was faced with a natural life sentence. And mostly, people who face a natural life sentence in this state here, they see the graveyard.

[You never thought you'd be free?]

No, I ain't never thought I were going to be free. ... But all throughout, through all that ordeal, all that happening, I find a way to be comfortable. ... I found a way of getting around the knife play. I found a way of getting around the homosexual acts. I found a way of getting 'round that. ...

 

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published may 1, 2003

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